This article originally appeared in Issue 14 of NOELLE FLOYD Magazine.
Isabell Werth enters the dressage manège with all the composure of a queen, floating down the centerline to greet the judges with a perfectly square halt. Unswayed by the packed stands and expectant crowd, the veteran German dressage rider resumes her dance with poise, softness, and quiet confidence. The horse underneath her melts seamlessly from one elegant movement to the next in response to invisible cues. If you're like us and have witnessed any number of Isabell's seemingly flawless tests, one can’t help but wonder: What is her secret?
With a track record that spans three decades and includes 10 Olympic medals, 12 World Equestrian Games medals, and dozens of regional titles, Isabell has long demonstrated that her horsemanship and technical prowess can rise to the top of any podium. She’s a force to be reckoned with and a stalwart for the German team; they’ve taken home team gold in all five of her Olympic appearances.
Isabell’s riding and training regimen has stood the test of time and made her the most successful dressage rider of the modern era. Looks can be deceiving, but there is no magic to Isabell’s program. On the contrary, her method of bringing out the best in any horse is refreshingly straightforward. Isabell’s mantra is to keep things “as uncomplicated as possible” in the saddle. Plain and simple.
Get Out of Your Rut
Simplicity is the name of the game according to Isabell. But that doesn’t inherently mean training has to be boring. Warm up trotting big circles and flexed lines, but don’t get stuck doing loops. Keep things interesting by periodically changing rein to increase elasticity throughout the horse’s body.
“When you circle at the trot, don’t loosen,” she warns, reinforcing that the contact should stay steady throughout each gait and movement.
“Correct by centimeters at a time."
If your horse resists contact or gets away from you, riders have a tendency to raise their hands in response. Isabell encourages riders to readjust that behavior and instead “bring [your horse] back with your knees and a little lower in front [with your hands],” while working through transitions on a 20-meter circle.
Consider the Horse’s Mindset
Whether you’re training at home or competing under the lights at a show, horses can react differently to your aids depending on the type of environment they’re in. As a rider, it’s important to be understanding of how and why your horse is responding to his surroundings, be it positive or negative.
If your horse is tense at a show, get right to work in the warm-up and divert their attention from the objects or activity that is causing them to act out. Isabell advises, “take the time to relax your horse. Let [them] start with a little bit of trot work and go back to walk later.”
Once you’re warmed up, slowly urge your horse to stretch into the contact and become active through the hind legs. “Correct by centimeters at a time,” Isabell says. The same rule applies even when a horse is tight or distracted and a rider might be tempted to adjust by drastically altering his or her contact.
Use Your Aids
Motionless and self-aware in the saddle she may be, and despite the fact that Isabell’s training style is clear and straightforward, Isabell isn’t afraid of using her aids to get a point across. Frequent clucks to remind the horse to go forward or a light tap of the whip to regain the horse’s attention are tools she is prepared to pull out of her toolbox whenever necessary. In fact, when Isabell teaches, she tends to ride every step from the ground with her students, often loudly clucking when she expertly recognizes that a horse needs more pace.
“Sit light, breathe, and enjoy."
Being prepared for a swift and convincing response is key when correcting a mistake or asking for an advanced movement such as a pirouette. Be quick with your seat and encourage movement forward. “Sit light, breathe, and enjoy,” Isabell says. “The secret [to the pirouette] is the preparation before.”
Cadence and Rhythm
“Keep the cadence through the shoulder-in,” Isabell insists when beginning lateral work. “It’s important to start slowly [with lateral work], and when you feel a little swing, start with the inside leg to outside rein. They need to come up and forward. The hind legs have to follow the front legs, not the opposite.”
Isabell notes that it’s important to establish a good rhythm to build off of throughout your training session or test. “[Keep the horse] uncomplicated, active, and in front of you.”
Just as important as warming up, cooling the horse down following a training session is essential. However, Isabell says to “always end on an easy trot without losing the rhythm. Horses should flow into downward transitions and be fluid.” Finishing with a stretchy trot while keeping the cadence and the swing in the horse’s body is something Isabell expects out of each ride.
Despite the extensive time Isabell has spent training horses over the course of her illustrious career, unlocking a horse’s potential is something she has yet to tire of. “After a lot of years in the sport and a lot of different kinds of horses, I’m really lucky to train day by day.”
Feature photo by Arnd Bronkhorst.